By Rebecca Bulnes
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According to Allison, an appreciation of jazz's history is essential to the development of a jazz player, and his own background bears this out. Born in early 1951 in South Bend, Indiana, he lived in that town and then on a nearby farm for three years before his family moved to Sarasota when he was nine years old. "I had two wonderful, loving parents, and I was one of the rare people who had two sets of grandparents there in South Bend," he remarks. "They lived on farms, and my dad eventually bought a farm. We had 120 acres: soybeans, corn, about thirteen or fourteen ponies, a gazillion cats, and one pig -- the token pig. The longer I live and the more people I meet, the more family histories I delve into, I'm so thankful for the childhood I had."
Allison's father was a jazz nut, but Eric and his older brother Dave grew up listening to the Beatles and other early- to mid-Sixties rockers. Eric originally thought of his father's music as "garbage," but the jazz bug crept up on him unexpectedly in junior high school. "Dad loved the big bands and Dixieland music -- Bob Crosby and the Bobcats, Count Basie, Stan Kenton," Allison notes. "Most jazz people got into Miles Davis and John Coltrane, what was happening then, but I wanted to know where all this stuff came from, so I bought Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, and all this stuff from the Twenties. It wasn't until much later, in college, that I really started getting turned on to the newer players." Allison became a virtual jazz encyclopedia, absorbing the swing-era influences of Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Lester Young before investigating bebop. For Allison it is this embrace of jazz's roots that completes him as a player. "I've always been a late bloomer," Allison says reflectively. "Occasionally the times seemed to have left me behind because I went backward instead of forward. Now I'm so thankful I did that."
Allison, twice divorced and currently living with his girlfriend, has made an almost steady career out of playing music in South Florida for the past 25 years. After moving here in the early Seventies to get his master's degree in jazz pedagogy at the University of Miami, Allison began playing all types of music to make a living. To this day he still performs at conventions and private parties in addition to his work at jazz venues. He made a brief pilgrimage to experience the New York City jazz scene in 1979, returning after only six months. "I don't think you're a complete musician until you've done the New York thing," says Allison. "I had a great time but I was like a manic depressive -- things were great one minute and horrible the next. I went through my money very quickly. The bottom line was that it wasn't the kind of place I wanted to live in. I would have had to get at least one day job, possibly two, just to hang in there, whereas down here I can make a living just playing. I don't teach, don't have a day gig. I don't even teach privately."
Allison recorded and issued his first album, Live at Ziegfield's, in 1984 with pianist Jack Keller. The duet recording won positive reviews in major jazz publications such as Cadence and Down Beat, but it wasn't until 1996 that Allison recorded again. He owes the second phase of his recording career to Weinstock, who founded the legendary Prestige Records in 1949 and sold it to Fantasy, Contemporary's parent company, in 1972. Weinstock now produces artists for Fantasy; he brought Allison to the label after hearing him play on numerous occasions.
"The first time I heard him playing with [pianist] Billy Marcus, I was unimpressed, I didn't like him, really," Weinstock recalls. "I heard him at [the Aventura club] Waterways a bit later and thought he was better. But when I saw him with Turk Mauro on a cruise ship, he was really cookin', playing tremendous. That's when I decided to record him. Eric is a student of jazz who can play all styles. He brings a variety of styles to a session, and not many musicians can do that. Most jazz musicians are pretty limited."
Allison's first recording for Contemporary, Mean Streets Beat, was released in late 1996 with many of the same players who perform on After Hours, including Mauro, Smith, and Burger. Allison feels that After Hours is the logical extension of Mean Streets Beat in its groove orientation. "Once I did an album with Bob and saw what he liked, I wrote more groove-oriented material. When I saw the track sequence he programmed for Mean Streets Beat, I got a good idea of what he wanted, and I wrote in that groove for After Hours."
After his dinner, Allison takes a seat next to guitarist Kelly Dow and vocalist Julie Davis. Allison begins the set on clarinet during the slow New Orleans shuffle "Am I Blue?," switching to saxophone in midsong. The bar patrons, some seated not more than ten feet from the performers, barely acknowledge the trio. But the musicians play as if the crowd is right there with them, soaking in all the glorious harmony. Allison's saxophone tone is bright, with simple, elegant flutters complementing Davis's earthy vocals. He senses the nuances in the duo's every note, filling in the breaks without crowding them and mimicking the occasional guitar or vocal riff. He clearly knows when to lay back and when to soar.